I have been thinking of this for the past couple of days.

Does the sentence sound naturally because it is grammatical or is it grammatical because it sounds naturally?

  • 3
    If I understand the question you are asking whether, in general, a sentence is grammatically correct because it sounds right or if it sounds right because it is grammatically correct. It is a chicken-and-egg question. The rules of a language's grammar are rules, not laws. And when a rule is broadly accepted it "sounds" right. I believe the purpose of grammar is to slow the rate at which language evolves so that we can understand what was said and written a few hundred years ago and, for obvious reasons, grammar's "enforcement" falls to the academy. Nov 6, 2013 at 1:43
  • You understood it correctly. So you are basically saying that it "sounds" right because there is a rule that dictates. Therefore, a new rule has to be accepted by quite a large number of people so it will sound natural. Circular, right; but I find it interesting.
    – gelolopez
    Nov 6, 2013 at 1:57
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    If you are a native speaker, and if you're speaking naturally, then, yes -- whatever "sounds right" to you is describable by grammar. By definition, it's "correct"; but others may have opinions on your speech habits and they may believe that those opinions are the "correct" rules. They're wrong; they're just trying to oppress you. Plus, they don't generally know what they're talking about. If you can understand them and they can understand you, both ways work. Though maybe not in every circumstance. Nov 6, 2013 at 3:53

2 Answers 2


There's no single answer to that, but a key complication to consider is that we can have cases where it is difficult to say concretely that an utterance is not "well formed", but where it can still raise acceptability or performance issues. For example, the following (if I've worked it out properly :) doesn't break any of the usual structural relations between the elements of the sentence, but you'd probably agree that it sounds unnatural to the point where you can't automatically judge if it's grammatical or not:

The man that the cheese that the mouse that the cat caught nibbled poisoned died.

Then there are cases where our intuitions don't seem to tell us that a sentence is completely ill-formed or completely well-formed, e.g.:

Who did you wonder whether came?

Who were the mothers baked a cake by the children?

Or cases where a sentence appears to be well-formed according to basic structure found in the language, and not 'semantically odd' as such (not quite the same case as e.g. "The drunkenness murmured the atmosphere"), but where we seem to need to include some semantic element as part of our definition/constraints on grammatical structure:

??Four is known to be equalled by two plus two.

??David was fitted by the jeans but not the jumper.

(compare "The jeans but not the jumper fitted David", which is perfectly acceptable).

So... the answer is that there's some very blurry boundary between a well-defined "structure" to the language that defines "grammar" in its simplest case and some practical or other aspects of the language which also play a part.


I would say it is natural because it is grammatically stated. We hear good grammar all the time, so we get used to it and therefore it feels natural. Many natural statements aren't grammatically correct, such as "Everyone bring their own stuff". Therefore, natural statements don't mean it is grammatically correct, grammatical statements sound natural.

  • Be aware than many would consider "Everyone bring their own stuff" as a perfectly grammatical use of what is called the "epicene they." I don't agree with them, but here in the United States it is not tested on the college admission tests because test items that might address the usage are no longer statistically valid. Nov 6, 2013 at 2:37

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